One of Oren B. Cheney’s favorite books, a perennial bestseller, claims that the “world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”1
After completing my research for this thesis and leaving so many stories untold, I feel that I have better grasped the truth of this quotation. Although this work may very well have raised more questions than it has answered, I hope that my research may have provided an important interpretation of Bates College’s early history from 1855 to 1877. It seems clear that by no means was Bates isolated from the prevailing cultural influences of the day. At the same time, however, Bates was a relatively progressive institution compared to other academic institutions.
Although Bates College seems to have welcomed and often defended its African American, white female, and underprivileged students, exceptions to this tolerance certainly existed. Sometimes paternalism and subtle prejudices were voiced by students and faculty members towards the first African Americans and white women at Bates. Occasionally, individual faculty members and students also expressed concerns about the prestige of the College and suffered from serving a relatively poor clientele. While white women and African Americans were present at Bates in its earliest decades, they were often found in extremely small numbers, and they faced hardships that other students did not experience.
Although these contemporary critiques of Bates’ social inclusiveness occurred, they seem to have been the exception and not the rule. Bates’ early diversity may seem quite limited in hindsight, but it was relatively progressive compared to the exclusivity of colleges such as Bowdoin, which did not accept women until 1971, or Princeton which did not accept African American students until well into the twentieth century. In addition, nineteenth century science and social science were often used to defend and reinforce commonly held prejudices which advocated for discrimination against women, African Americans, and the poor. In the face of these often overwhelming external pressures, Bates held its ground in regard to these issues and continued to admit African Americans, women and poor students throughout this period. Beyond simply admitting these students, often Bates attempted to integrate these students into the extracurricular activities and various other aspects of campus life. In the mid-nineteenth century, this particular brand of inclusiveness was found at only a handful of Western colleges such as Oberlin and Hillsdale and at no other Eastern college at the time.
Although this thesis has largely been the examination of a microcosm, the relevance of its conclusions is widely applicable. Bates withstood a barrage of criticism for its egalitarian values in the nineteenth century, and the small community’s courageous response to this criticism provides an admirable example for future generations. Throughout the period examined in this thesis, Bates’ basic values remained relatively intact, such as ancient Free Will Baptist commitments to open their churches and schools to virtually anyone and to seek the truth. Even a casual observer on the Bates campus in 2005 can view remnants of the impact of Bates’ historical commitment to openness (particularly in admissions policies), as it is currently reflected in everything from the size of the current endowment to the substance of the yearly catalogue. In determining policies, Bates looked toward the values of its founders and supporters in its early years. In doing so, Bates often bravely ignored new intellectual trends and peer institutions in shaping its historical mission.
My second major conclusion is that it is dangerous for an institution to rigorously compare itself to other popular trends and institutions if it wishes to be seen as progressive in the future. Although I attempted to compare and contrast Bates with other colleges, I am grateful that the founders of the college did not attempt to do so in practice. If Oren Cheney had attempted to model Bates after any other popular New England college at the time, he would have likely tried to appeal to a white, all male, and well-to-do applicant pool. Courageously, early Bates leaders did not seem to obsess over the loss of prestige that may have resulted from the school’s egalitarian policies. “Science” at the time, (including phrenology) from other institutions often claimed that women, African Americans and the poor were innately intellectually deficient. But instead of modeling Bates in the light of these scientific claims, Cheney rooted the school the school in a unique egalitarian value structure based on a Free Will Baptist sense of truth. Although some absolute “religious” convictions have their dangers (as seen by the Inquisition or the continuous struggle in Israel), basic ethical or religious values such as humility and open love definitely have their place in directing both scientific and humanitarian progress.
My third major conclusion is that Bates and similar institutions can justly describe themselves as having progressive histories. Although the Bates’ early community certainly did not reflect twenty first century social norms (as reflected in the 2004 Catalogue), Bates was still a very forward-looking nineteenth century American college. Bates clearly was swimming against the prevailing intellectual current in mid-nineteenth century America and was by my own definition a progressive school. My definition was shaped, perhaps incestuously, by my own membership in the Bates community. Perhaps all institutions could label themselves as progressive as defined by their own unique community values, but institutions such as Bates were clearly pioneers in what would become larger social movements. Because there were exceptions to Bates’ progressiveness, a humble pride (if such a thing is possible) in the predominant values of the College seems appropriate.
If some future historian of Bates College wishes to interpret the early history of Bates (albeit through a slightly different lens), I would recommend further researching the religious values of the early professors and collegians. In my research I have come across scores of sources dripping with religious rhetoric (the Morning Star, especially), which if interpreted more thoroughly, would contribute more to a better understanding of the basic values of the community. Historians researching during the Civil Rights era and the late Cold War (1970s and 1980s) were undoubtedly influenced by their environment to write about class, race and gender as the world was focused on the merits and flaws of communism versus capitalist democracies. Now, the focus of the intellectual world seems to have shifted more toward interpreting history through a religious lens, particularly after September 11, 2001, the war on terrorism, and the rise to power of the so-called “Christian Right.” The likely emergence of the centrality of religion in interpreting cultural history does not mean that race, gender and class interpretations are obsolete (far from it), but only that these topics will probably be viewed more frequently through a religious lens themselves. It would be the utmost flattery to the author if the subject of Bates College were so analyzed in the future.
The evidence in my thesis supports the assertion that Bates was a progressive institution compared to its peer schools and to the intellectual mainstream. Certainly, exceptions to this ideal existed, but generally, Bates from 1855 to 1877 preserved the basic egalitarian values of its Free Will Baptist founders. My conclusions about Bates’ courageous preservation of its core its core values, the dangers of comparing oneself to popular trends, and the legitimacy of Bates celebrating its progressiveness certainly may seem relevant today, but no doubt other useful conclusions may be extrapolated by later historians. In the last major history of Bates College in 1936, Professor Alfred Anthony put it well. He asserted, “[t]he writer has been heartened by the thought that, even if his work should be incomplete, or poorly done, yet a later hand might be benefited, and the work of future years become more easy because of these endeavors.”2 Like Anthony, I hope that my work may contribute to the perpetual process of seeking the truth by future generations.
1. Holy Bible, John 21:25.
2. Alfred Williams Anthony, Bates College and Its Background (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1936), Preface.